Heroism: econsists of putting others first, even at your own peril. The noun heroism comes from the Greek hērōs, which referred to a demigod. As someone who shows great courage and valor is referred to as a hero, their actions are considered to be acts of heroism.
I recently watched the fantastic Netflix documentary - 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible which details a team of Nepalese high altitude mountaineers' quest to summit the tallest mountain peaks in the world in only 7 months. I was exceptionally inspired by the audacity of their mission as well as the fact that they had something significant to prove coming from a traditionally disenfranchised background. But led by a dynamic charismatic individual they made the impossible possible.
I couldn't help but compare their journey to those of us working in the corporate social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion business - we are each climbing peaks - theirs physical - ours conceptual and ethical. The metaphor of mountaineering has long been used to typify a significant goal or struggle - Martin Luther King Jr. used mountains in many of his most significant speeches. But seeing how this group of intrepid explorers achieved their goal was more the point I took away. They showed and proved. They didn't wait for permission. They leaned on their collective experience, capability, and enthusiasm for the task at hand. And most importantly, they never gave up.
To achieve the peaks of a corporate world where injustice is eradicated, inequity is eliminated, diversity is expanded, and inclusion is enhanced we will need to heed the example of this documentary. We need to do more together. We need to support each other. And we must never stop until the goal is achieved.
With that in mind, here is my unpacking of the experience of the documentary in the effort to pass on the inspiration I absorbed. This is filtered through the primary subject of the documentary, Nirmal Purja - a soldier, son, team leader, and death-zone seeker.
Nirmal Purja's (or Nims') father and older brothers were some of the few to call themselves members of the Brigade of Ghurkas - elite fighters from Nepal consigned to the British Army since the 1950's. Their respective military careers allowed their baby brother to attend English boarding school. This educational boost would come in handy as he also embarked on a career with the Ghurkas in 2003. His first seemingly impossible feat was becoming the first Ghurka accepted into the British Royal Navy's Special Boat Service (comparable to the US Navy's Seal Team Six) in 2009. The special unit is predominantly made up of Royal Marines Commandos, and specializes in classified undercover raids. Along with the SAS, the SBS is regarded as the most elite unit in the British military.
In order for him to climb this first career mountain - which is arguably as challenging as any of the above 8,000-meter behemoth's he would later ascend, Nims would need to lean on his unique spirit of resilience, persistence, and overwhelming optimism. This optimism is what strikes viewers introduced to Nims in the documentary. The documentary traces Nims and his team of Nepalese sherpas' quest to climb all 14 super 8,000-meter mountains in the world (Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II, K2, Broad Peak, Cho Oyu, Manaslu, and Shishapangma) in merely 7 months. For reference, the previous record holder took 7 years to successfully do so.
Nims relatively happy nature belies the steely will he possesses. Underneath all the smiles, dancing, and hugging is a person whose ability has been forged in the crucible of terrible conflict and struggle. He is a dreamer with the practicality of military tactician. While on assignment, he was nearly killed when a sniper's bullet (aimed for his head) collided with the butt of his rifle. As the breadwinner of his family, he had to learn to balance military duty, familial responsibility, and a burgeoning passion for high-altitude climbing.
While in the special unit, he developed his love of mountaineering, even specializing in cold weather warfare. While on leave in 2012, he learned how to climb and summited the 6,119-metre Lobuche East with his guide shortly after. Then he began tackling Everest in earnest. Summiting for the first time in 2014 and then leading an expedition of Ghurkas up to the peak a year later. His climbing confidence building as his military exploits wound down some, Nims began to dream even bigger.
The Death Zone
The first time Nims saved a fellow climber was during that initial ascent to Everest in 2014. This led him to the realization that not only was the job about ascending peaks, but also never leaving anyone behind. In the documentary, Nims and his crew embarked on two separate death-defying lifesaving missions while chasing their own objective of racing up perilous peaks. While most climbers were in it for individual glory, Nims knew that his new passion and vocation extended far beyond himself.
He became addicted to what climber's call "the death zone" - or altitudes above a certain point where the pressure of oxygen cannot sustain human life for a significant time span. This is why plane cabins are pressurized. According to Wikipedia, at or above the 8,000 meters above sea level altitude "additional red blood cells are manufactured; the heart beats faster; non-essential body functions are suppressed, food digestion efficiency declines (as the body suppresses the digestive system in favor of increasing its cardiopulmonary reserves); and one breathes more deeply and more frequently. But acclimatization requires days or even weeks. Failure to acclimatize may result in altitude sickness, including high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or cerebral edema (HACE)."
During his mission, Nims was afflicted with high altitude cerebral edema, but still managed to save another climber also suffering the same symptoms. In a telling moment in the documentary, during his preparations for Project Possible - he was being tested in London at the Altitude Center. It was there that he gained confirmation that his fitness level for such high-altitude excursions was, in fact, above the curve. He possessed a natural physiological advantage – he could ascend and adjust to altitude faster than most mountaineers.
With his already burgeoning confidence reconfirmed by clear capability, he was ready to gain the approval of the only person that truly mattered, his mother.